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Columnist
Maddux never more popular
By Barry Rozner | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 12/8/2008 12:01 AM

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The irony is not lost on Greg Maddux.

It took his final season - before which he told the Daily Herald it was virtually certain to be his last - for him to become a truly popular figure around baseball.

Actually, it took the Mitchell Report.

Before Roger Clemens became Public Enemy No. 2 behind Barry Bonds, you rarely heard Greg Maddux mentioned as one of the best of his generation, let alone one of the best of all time.

He was an afterthought, considered less than special because he didn't overpower anyone, didn't throw no-hitters and didn't excite those who wanted 99 mph fastballs and 20-strikeout games.

But this year, suddenly, Greg Maddux became a great pitcher, while having his worst season in 21 years.

"I'm popular now,'' Maddux said with a laugh this weekend, as he prepared for a news conference today making his retirement official. "That's OK. I didn't need the attention. Better to sneak up on people.''

By saying little and offering even less with his actions, Maddux cruised under the radar.

During 22 seasons of quietly going about his business, he merely won 355 games, good for eighth all time and one more than Clemens, who had - up until this year - been universally hailed as the greatest pitcher of the last several decades, and by some as the greatest of all time.

Maddux wasn't even called the best pitcher on his own staff for most of his time in Atlanta.

And when he left Chicago as a free agent late in 1992, he was blasted for having made a big mistake and was informed then that Jose Guzman would be ample replacement for a guy who had never been impressive before winning 20 games and a Cy Young in 1992.

But now he's a big deal, history has been revised, both in the real world and the imagined, and Maddux will get a hero's send-off by the national press in Las Vegas.

The man called greedy in Chicago 16 years ago this week will now be nominated for sainthood after leaving $10 million on the table.

Once called mediocre, he will be called one of the greatest of all time and absolutely the best of the last 30 years.

Once called skinny and weak, he will be called clean in an era of filth.

Once called dull because he was too wise to say too much, he will be called brilliant, funny and entertaining as he says farewell to the game.

"I never cared about any of that stuff,'' Maddux said. "The way I figure it, the less people know, the better. I had a teammate that played second base in Chicago who did that pretty well, and it worked out OK for him.''

Maddux will join Ryne Sandberg in Cooperstown in the summer of 2014, after he receives one of the highest vote totals in the history of the ballot.

We'll spare you the numbers because you've heard them all before, but Maddux finally has earned respect for an astounding career that placed him among the very best in 132 years of baseball in nearly every statistical pitching category of consequence.

But after 22 seasons and at the age of 42, Maddux has his sights set on much bigger goals.

"I want to watch my son, Chase, pitch and help him if there's anything I know worth telling him,'' Maddux said, with typical humility. "He's seen me pitch enough. He's 11 (years old) and now it's my turn to watch him.

"My family put up with a lot from me while I went off and played a kid's game. I've been lucky with health and the rest of it's just been fun.

"Everything I have is just from going to do what I enjoyed doing, and they paid me for it, too. I never got caught up in the rest of it, never looked too far ahead. I just enjoyed the moments, the going to the ballpark, the teammates. I enjoyed it all.

"I've been very lucky.''

No one will consider it luck when he's asked about Clemens, of whom he'll say little.

He will be pressed into comparing himself to Clemens, but he'll say there's no way to compare a changeup artist to a fireballer and that he never saw him do anything illegal so he has no opinion on steroid use.

He will prove again that he's smarter than those who believed he was nothing special when he left Chicago in 1992.

"It's been great, but I really don't want to spend my winters working out anymore, because it gets harder every year,'' Maddux said. "Recovering gets harder every start. Spring training gets harder every year.

"Everything just gets tougher physically.

"I know I can still pitch. There's no doubt in my mind, but better to leave knowing that and being offered a contract than being told to go home and that you're not wanted anymore.''

So Maddux will play with his kids and play more golf, though as he told us in February while learning the stack-and-tilt that it's too late for the Champions Tour.

Instead, he goes out a baseball hero, with more fanfare than ever, having been largely ignored for most of his 22 years in the game.

You'd forgive Greg Maddux if he privately wondered where everyone has been all this time.

brozner@dailyherald.com